1919: Life in the US–Health, hygiene, and a rural-urban divide

The influenza epidemic was raging in the winter of 1918-1919. Most of the deaths came from bacterial pneumonia following the influenza. Maternal mortality rates which had fallen to about 6 per thousand for white women and 14 per thousand for black women doubled during the flu epidemic. (Phylon (1960-)Vol. 38, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1977), pp. 259-266). If you are up for reading more about the pandemic, here’s a book about it. 

Infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and enteritis  (frequently associated with food poisoning) were the leading causes of death. Diphtheria was also common, Forty percent of deaths from infectious disease were those under age 5. Antibiotics weren’t widely used until the 1940s. My Granny Grace lost her baby brother during this time and my Grandma Gladys regaled me with horror stories such as puss dripping from people’s ears because there weren’t effective treatments for ear infections.

Nearly all women gave birth at home. Doctors made house calls and most doctors were trained as general practitioners. Sometimes, Mom was given a sniff of a pain killer such as ether or chloroform. A few women demanded a combination of morphine and scopolamine known as Twilight Sleep. These painkillers were later abandoned as being too dangerous. With the pain and dangers of childbirth being impossible to avoid, at long last, birth control (mostly condoms) was legal when prescribed by a doctor.

Cigarette smoking was gaining popularity because cigarettes had been distributed free to soldiers during WW1. (They’d also been given books and literacy also increased.)

Bacteria had been identified as causing disease and public health officials worked to teach proper hygiene. During WW1, many recruits were unhealthy and had terrible teeth. This resulted in a new emphasis in dental hygiene in 1919. Around this time, dental schools became affiliated with medical schools and universities instead of being independent and inconsistent in their teachings. A few years earlier, around 1900, only 7% of all people in the US brushed their teeth.  

In 1919, your toothbrush, if you had one, would look like this and be made of rubber.  (thanks to Wikipedia. for the image)

Thankfully, they chewed gum,

By 1930, about 65% of the population brushed regularly.

Public health officials worked tirelessly to et people to be more sanitary and to brush their teeth.

x-rays were newly discovered and blood banks were established. The whole notion of how babies were made on a cellular level gained scrutiny. With few regulations, plenty of quackery abounded. Radium was seen as a cure-all, although it was dangerously radioactive.

Most homes didn’t have a refrigerator until the 1940s. The most common refrigerant was ammonia, which, although still one of the best refrigerants out there, can kill you and stinks if there is a pipe leak. Ice boxes were used instead. Stoves of 1919 were flat glass gas heated ranges and smaller than the old types that used wood or coal. Click here to see stove photos. Coal still heated homes by heating steam for radiators. Rumor has it that Pella was blanketed in an unpleasant coal haze that could be seen for miles around. Having an easy to clean kitchen became important and tiles surrounding food preparation areas was an important part of a modern kitchen. Scrutable white tiles were de rigor in kitchens as well as bathrooms, where an elegant clawfoot tub under a window allowed homeowners to relax in luxury. 

Candlestick phones, telegrams, and letters were common forms of communication. Around 30% of homes had a telephone. Due to the high cost of wordiness with these devices and an appreciation for efficiency begun with the development of thermodynamics, brevity of speech was valued. I’ve written about this effect on literature here. This push for efficiency brought us assembly lines.

With the war over, Americans were restless for change. Women wanted equality. The Suffragette movement was in full force. 1919 would be the last year where women weren’t allowed to vote.  Labor strikes were a common occurrence. Women and laborers had held the nation together during the war. They wanted their share of the coming prosperity. Black Southerners moved to the North for work and to flee persecution. This was not always welcome. They burst into the North with music and art. Officially, this is called the Great Migration and you can listen to the music here. City folk were entertained with dance halls and movie palaces. Henry Ford flexed his muscle with the production of efficiently assembled, affordable automobiles, and decent wages. A better life seemed possible. For city folks,  1919 was bursting with promise.

Left out of much of the excitement were the rural folks–who made up about half of the population. Most still lacked electricity and running water. They hauled water, lit kerosene lamps, and used out houses. Despite hardships, those who had 40 acres or more had a sense of self sufficiency.

In 1919, there were many Black farmers. By the end of the next decade, they were driven from their land by lynching and other forms of discrimination, and would migrate to the cities, leaving rural America nearly 80% white. Today, only about 20% of US residents are rural.

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